It’s no secret that I love movies about movies, especially those that celebrate the history of movies. From Cinema Paradiso (1988) to Day For Night, (1973) there have been many films that look at the history and the process of film-making and have done so with love and romanticism. Stan & Ollie, starring John C Reilly and Steve Coogan, is one of those films.
From the opening long take of the two stars – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy – walking through a studio discussing their working relationship with legendary producer Hal Roach, we are introduced to two legends of cinema. This is a brief glimpse into the work that occurs behind the magic, however, the majority of the film is set in the 1950s as the duo toured the UK to initially tiny audiences who had very much forgotten the magic. They were there to replay their famous routines from their classic films, and hopefully drum up enthusiasm for an upcoming production of their next movie based around the legend of Robin Hood.
It’s implied that this is the first time they’ve worked together in over 15 years, separated by contracts, studios and personality. This wasn’t true to fact, but fact never got in the way of a good fiction and Stan & Ollie is undoubtedly a very pleasing fiction.
This isn’t a film of big emotions or histrionics. The central dispute in the film revolves around the fact that Hardy had appeared in a film without his partner because of a contractual dispute between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel. This did in fact happen. The film was called Zenobia (1939) and was directed by Hal Roach regular Gordan Douglas. Hardy was teamed up with Harry Langdon and the film was wonderfully described by the New York Times as ‘a rough idea of what would happen to Gone With the Wind if Hal Roach had produced it.’
Laurel and Hardy’s relationship began in 1921 when Roach took the unusual step of pairing two comedians instead of one funny man and one straight man. It obviously worked as the duo became one of the biggest box office draws of the 1930s.
Their relationship did not end with Zenobia however. In Stan & Ollie, the pair had stopped working together when Laurel left Roach and the UK tour was a way of reconciling, not just the comedy duo, but also two very different men who didn’t always see eye-to-eye, despite the obvious love that they shared for each other.
In fact, they continued to make films together throughout the ‘40s after both left Hal Roach and signed for 20th Century Fox in 1941 and then MGM in 1942. Although they had less involvement in the development of their films at this time and their improvisations were often curtailed, these films were still incredibly popular. They toured Europe in 1947 and it was at this time that the Robin Hood script was developed, although never realised.
As the 1940s came to an end, their popularity was starting to wane but there was no animosity between them. In fact it was Laurel who encouraged Hardy to take parts in films without him. Hardy had a number of small roles in films like The Flying Kentuckian (1949) with John Wayne (who was friends with Hardy), and Frank Capra’s Riding High(1950).
Their final film together was Atoll K (1951) (known as Robinson Crusoe Land in the UK and Utopia in the United States). This European production was a bit chaotic and there were several versions released, although none made an impact with critics or audiences.
It’s at this time that the tour depicted in Stan & Ollie takes place, although missing from the film are their appearances on the BBC programme Face The Music, footage of which unfortunately no longer exists, and an appearance on the US show This is Your Life.
Movies have often always played fast and loose with facts and it’s obvious that Stan & Ollie is no different but a movie can also be true to the real people they depict, and true to the time, without adhering too closely to historical fact. Director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope have managed to capture a very close and loving relationship along with the tensions and misunderstandings that are common when people have known each other for a long time. Coogan and Reilly are equally perfect in their roles, although more kudos will probably go to Reilly because of the excellent make-up and because Ollie is the more relatable of the two. Whereas Stan is very business focused and withdrawn (the Robin Hood film mentioned earlier is running into difficulties and Laurel is the one who’s liaising with potential producers), Ollie is optimistic, something which is relatable and infectious. He’s also battling illness which makes him more open to empathy.
Worth mentioning also are the two wives; Shirley Henderson as the lovable Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel, who can’t wait to tell anyone within hearing distance that she was once in a film directed by Preston Sturgess. At one moment their manager Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) remarks ‘two double acts for the price of one,’ and this is spot on. The relationship between the wives is wonderfully performed as it transforms from mistrust to a mutual acceptance of each other and each other’s husband.
There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles to Stan & Ollie, even the obligatory moment of crisis is understated, but that doesn’t matter. We are here not to watch high drama, but to have a glimpse into one of the great comedy relationships of all time. Perhaps the best moments of Stan & Ollie are those which recreate the classic gags from the films, some of which are incorporated into the story, whilst others are seen being performed on stage.
There are a lot of laughs but – and this is what makes the film linger long after it’s ended – there is the ever lingering hint of sadness that prevails throughout. We may want these two legends to succeed one more time but it’s inevitable that time is running out. It’s a bittersweet film which never descends into schmaltz or whimsy. Whether you’re a fan of Laurel & Hardy, a fan of film history, or just want to see a good film about two old friends facing old age and a changing world, Stan & Ollie is perfect viewing and anything but ‘another fine mess’.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10
Stan & Ollie is on general theatrical release now.